Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hey sad poets, cheer up!

Poets are not generally thought of as happy people. Hell, even Shel Silverstein glowers in his author photos. And why shouldn't he? To write a poem is to wring it out of one's tortured soul. We wear black turtlenecks because that's how we feel on the inside: like black turtlenecks, a garment that has become the very symbol for the sad soul of its wearer.

About this sadness, well, there's nothing to be done. Such is the price of art. After all, the more tortured the artist, the better the art, right?

Or not. The whole notion of the artist as a tortured soul, while certainly romanticised in our culture, is, at best, flawed. At worst, it's keeping sick people from getting help they might need to get better.

Such is the belief behind the majority of the essays in Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process (2008 Johns Hopkins University Press).

I've been interested in the whole "tortured artist" thing for a long time. In 9th grade my hero was Eddie Vedder, hardly the picture of mental health back then. When I started getting into poetry, I dug sad poems. That's what I thought poems were. I didn't really write happy poems. The fact that so many of the poets I learned about in high school and early college killed themselves (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Hart Crane to name a few) certainly didn't help dispel the notion that sadness (or, more accurately, depression) and art were joined at the hip.

A couple of years ago I read Peter D. Kramer's book Against Depression, which was basically a polemic against the romanticized notion that depression is good for art. Kramer made a lot of good points, but the book was, for the most part, dry and felt self-righteous. It probably would have been better as an article in Harper's than a 368 page book.

Poets on Prozac manages to escape the trappings of Kramer's book if only because it has a narrower focus (poets) but also because it's written by its target audience (poets). And most of the poets say that being a sad bastard doesn't necessarily make you a good poet.

J. D. Smith puts it this way in his essay, "The Desire to Think Clearly," my favorite in the book: "For a poet, seeking treatment for depression is to break with an implicit social contract. To the extent that the culture at large has a view of poets, beyond acknowledging their existence as a strange but seldom seen life form, such as a platypus or giant squid, that view is based on the Romantic myth of the poet as a strange, distraught creature, preferably consumptive, who occasionally breaks forth in song or a dirge. The poet in this view is morose so that others do not have to be, a pack mule for the collective burden of consciousness."

Many of the poets argue that depression actually hinders creativity. They can't get jack shit done when they're depressed. Think about it: depression is an illness. How productive are you when you have the flu?

While most of the essays feel honest and offer unique perspectives, the book does occasionally tumble into the very naval-gazing vortex its subject matter invites.

David Budbill is the only poet in the book who argues that depression is a good thing - that without it he could not create his art. And he makes no apologies for his illness or for putting the Angel of Depression before his family. He writes of receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 1981 and how that pushed him into a deep depression. He then offers the poem "When You Were Four and I was Forty-One," a poem to his daughter. In it he recalls how she would come sit on his lap as he sat in a chair day after day crying ("...not ever, not once, did you ask me why / I was crying, nor did you ever ask me to explain").

This felt extremely selfish to me. I can't imagine having an illness that makes me, essentially, worthless (if not harmful) as a parent, but that I refuse to get treatment for because I believe my art would suffer without it.

Perhaps I would feel differently if Budbill wrote amazing poems, but from what I've read, he doesn't. All of the poems he offered as examples of his work felt, to me, like decent undergraduate writing at best. The titles of his poems are the first clue ("When I Get Depressed," "The End of Winter," "No Poems," "Thirty Five Years Alone"). Their content is the second ("O, Angel of depression, I give myself to you" and "When I get depressed / I get silent and I stare / at nothing all day long").

Then again, I think Budbill's poems are a great example of what happens when a poet falls in love with sadness. You stop being able to see past your dark little cloud. And it's hard to see how any interesting poems - poems relevant to anyone besides your misreble little self - can come from that place.


Anonymous said...

I like this.


J.D. Smith said...

Thanks for mentioning the book, which may yet do some good.

While cheering up right away is not always an option, cultivating sadness is solipsistic and unnecessary.

A peasant at heart, I believe that problems will come looking for you, so you don't need to go looking for them.


J.D. Smith